Itsa Kinda Magic. Or more likely, these days it’s not. Magic is back, but this time it’s different. Magic is no longer a lounge show. Satin top hats, frilly shirts, velvet jackets, red drapes, sequinned outfits, feathers, and big boobs have vanished in a puff of sickly hairspray. Entertainment, or at least being seen to be trying to entertain, has become an embarrassment. Magic is now presented as though it is a phenomenon. Stripped down and raw.
Last years strangest TV event saw Derran Brown nearly blowing his brains across the floor of a Jersey barn playing Russian Roulette. It was great to watch. Meanwhile David Blaine was slumped in a perspex box, hung on a rope from a crane in front of London’s City Hall. While these new magic guys were exploring their own limits of endurance, one of the satin clad masters of showbizzy conjuring was, with symbolic synchronisity, being dragged across his Las Vegas stage in the jaws of an albino tiger.
Why has magic turned its back on over trickery? Maybe its the same reason we want our cookery shows filmed with shaky hand held cameras, our comedy to look like fly on the wall documentaries, our pop stars selected and transformed in full view, our homes to look like old warehouses exposed brickwork, and our cars complete with rugged all terrain engineering. We like the feeling of the truth, the sensation of verite. It makes us feel closer to the action, like there is less in the way. We like events rather than staging. It makes us feel a little bit real-er.
The ever expanding mass of leisure and entertainment is desperate to hold our gaze. It’s our attention that they can sell on to advertisers. In its exhaustion of trying to keep our attention, it has turned to things which were once the hallmarks of the shocking avant guard. 8 hour film of the Empire State Building? – try this 44 day long magic trick! Want to trust an audience to snip off pieces of your clothes like Yoko Ono? – try squeezing the trigger of a magnum against your temple on the say so of an ordinary member of the public?
We like this unusual feeling of reality because it bridges the big gap between ourselves and the world played out through media: the politicians who pledge their honesty, elections that verge on the fraudulent, wars that are fought for obscured reasons. The real world is like a conjurers card table: riddled with trap doors, secret passages and hidden compartments.
Its not about real truth – its more to do with feelings and sensations. ‘The Office’ isn’t any less staged than an old Two Ronnies sketch. Jamie isn’t any less a lifestyle Nazi than Fanny Craddock. Politicians don’t lie anymore than they always did. And TV is still just a box in the corner of the living room despite all its Reality.
A world characterised by lack of absolutes that spirals like a conspiracy theory out into an ungraspable infinite number of relative truths. With magic, we feel close to the truth, precisely because it is being hidden from us. This difference between what we know and what we don’t know is ‘magic’.
Magic is unique. It invites us to guess how we’ve been fooled. It wants us to look for the join, to discover the trickery. It lets us think about truth and lies. And these new magic stunts lets us do that in a way that makes sense of the modern world. Their references are things teetering on the cusp between credibility and snake oil.
Derren Brown describes his act as ‘a mixture of applied psychology, magic, misdirection and showmanship’. Part mystic, part motivation coach speaking management consultant.
A concoction of self help books and mysterious leathery magic volumes. His goatee beard signals ‘trendy’ but something in the way its is clipped also says ‘mystical’. Like the Temple of Apollo at Delphi reincarnated a trendy reception desk for a Soho production company.
When David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear you just knew it was a camera trick or something equally sneaky yet obvious. But now we’ve seen the Twin Towers disappear for real, it’s somehow lost its spectacular appeal.
David Blaines TV shows explore the opposite kind of places, the streets – associated with real-ness by everyone from the Situationists to Dr Dre. David roams around everyday locations like a mystic: a sort of hadi-cam Jesus. Blains slight of hand is the style of presentation – what looks like raw amateur footage – unstaged, spontaneous, with a sheen of undoctored truth. We know enough not to trust glossy images, that digital versions of Kate Moss are dissected and reconstructed like beautiful Frankesteins. But we have yet to really believe that the same is true of low res images too.
‘Above the Below’ was the portentous title of Blaines last trick. Above was David, in a perspex box for 44 days, without any food. Below was a restless crowd looking up: shouting, teenagers screeching at each other, dads swearing at their sons. It’s here that Paul McCartney flipped out, his thumbs aloft attitude turning to vicious paranoia as he turned on his own PR agent.
For his previous stunt, Vertigo, he stood on top of a 100 ft pole for 35 hours like a human triumphal column: a piece of civic design turned to flesh. And the props for ‘Above the Below’ have their own architectural language. With a water pipe in, and a funnel headed soil pipe out. Raw plumbing which recalls the Brutalist detailing of the Smithsons Hunstanton School. New Bruitalism was a fundamentalist interpretation of the Modernist gospel. It stripped architecture down to its raw, uncooked truth. Truth to materials, honesty of construction, and functional clarity.
Hanging like a lost elevator next to a City Hall. This kind of glass-as-democrasy architecture is like the magician who passes the trick to the audience for inspection. ‘Look’ it says ‘there are no secret chambers’. ‘See’, it smiles ‘there are no shadowy figures, you can see everything, so nothing untoward can be happening!’. The rhetoric of open and transparent operation of government is translated into open and transparent architecture.
Up river from the GLA is Pugins and Barrys Houses of Parliament. An entirely opposite idea of a building for democracy, and an opposite kind of architecture. Its Victorian Gothic Revivalism is full of the mystery of the Dark Ages. With neo-medeavil conspiracy lurking in its shadowy alcoves and intrigue creeping through its passages it is more a Haunted Houses of Parliament. Planned by a Classicist (Barry) and styled into Gothicness by Pugin. Its aesthetic, its plan, its structure and construction at odds with each other. In comparison to City Hall, it is incredible that it was once regarded as appropriate setting for the seat of government. Perhaps, lurking behind the picturesque facade, there is dry satire. Which is more realistic representation of political life?
The idea of fakeness, of illusion, of trickery is, on the face of it, an anathema to contemporary architecture – still deeply in thrall to Modernism. But beneath the rational, sleek surface writhes an occult magic. You can see it in the descriptions of things that ‘float’, concealed lighting which makes things glow, sensations such transparency all hint at trickery. And just like magic tricks, they are not really floating, glowing or disappearing.
Perhaps the vestiges of this architecture as magic is the motivation behind the detail that has made the world look modern: the shadow gap. A shadow gap is the opposite of a skirting board. A skirting board is a strip of wood used to cover up the gap between wall and floor, so that the uneven edge of the plastering can be neatly concealed. The shadow gap resolves the same detail, but does it with out overtly concealing anything. Concealment is dishonest, and architecture hates to deceive. It is formed with a small metal angle that supports a piece of plasterboard. By holding the 12mm plasterboard sheet 10mm above the floor, it allows the plasterer to skim coat the board leaving a sharp finish. Visually, the effect is to make the junction between the wall and floor disappear – the depth of the plasterboard casting the junction into shadow and obscuring all but the lowest angled views. While it apparently dispenses with artifice (the concealing strip of wood), it uses other attributes to conceal. Classic magicians craft.
Architecture likes thinks of itself as innocent, without meaning, without ideology. Standing naked, and natural unadorned below the rolling clouds. Like the schmaltzy self help-ism: just ‘be yourself!’ – which is exactly what I’m scared of. There is something more hopeful in the Victorian assemblage of history. An optimism and a belief in the clarity of truth and authenticity that only fiction can create.
Back on the Las Vegas stage, that bouffanted, overblown, lounge fraud Roy is in the jaws of his big white tiger Montecor, desperately trying to beat him off with his microphone (it’s usually Siegfried that gets beaten off by Roy).
The trick bit back, fangs plunged through Roys perma-tanned neck. Raw natures revenge at all this artifice, its camp incarceration in the Mirages Secret Garden. Meanwhile, the wind blows dust from the desert over strip. Wouldn’t Vegas make such a beautiful electric-ruin, buried in the dirt? Caesars Palace as an electric Pompeii, high fat snacks petrified on its counters. The Venizia flooded as its sea levels rise, its malls silently populated by schools of Angler Fish gliding through the deep plan. Paris with burning barricades along the corridors, cobblestones in one hand and souvenir mugs in the other. mini-Nazis marching under the mini-Arc de Triumph, rebadging the slots with three swastikas for a jackpot payout.
These might seem like implausible fantasies. A long time ago, people wanted architecture which made you feel lots of different things. Including fear and loathing. It might seem hard to imagine in our relaxed era, where leaders wear open necked shirts, chinos and loafers. An era where we want buildings to be lit with warm spring sun, smell like roasted coffee beans, sound like bubbling brooks and feel like stone worn smooth by the sea. It is left to other forms of culture to explore these more sinister emotions.
Architecture once was explicit about the power of the state, the threat of religion, the warning of prison. From the dark gothic awe of the middle ages to the indifferent megastructures of the welfare state . These were buildings that told you where you stood – and told you what society thought of you. Remember, next time you step over the threshold of a friendly new building that misdirection is the main trick of any illusionist.
First Published in Contemporary